Letters to Eleanor: When You Get a Summer Job

The time has almost come when you can go for your first real summer job, like – with a W-2 form and everything – and to ask you, that moment can’t come fast enough.  

You’ve gotten a sense of how quickly savings can add up – a pet sitting gig here, a babysitting afternoon there. And now that at least one of your friends has started working in a retail setting, you’ve been asking me on the daily if we can make something like that happen for you.  

I get it. Visions of deeply discounted merch dance in your head, along with whatever’s left of the paycheck after those deductions you didn’t know you didn’t know about.  

Chalk one up for practical real-life conversations within our household, as you’ve quickly calculated the per hour pay x hours worked math, only to be brought back down to earth by Dad and me sharing the buzzkill news of taxes and such.  

Sorry not sorry, sis. We’d much rather send you out into the world with a keen understanding of personal finance and how to manage your money well. So yes, that also means we will make you calculate and pay the tax when it’s coming out of your account. And if you’re short? Save ‘til you have enough and then buy it (Dear Future You: you’re welcome).  

Today we were in a retail store and lo and behold, the minimum age to work there is the age you happen to be – huzzah! It would be a great place for you to start, if retail is your jam. It also reminded me, one encounter in particular, of my own stint as a young person giving retail a go for summer and holiday break work experience.  

I was in the fitting room, and darn if almost every item I tried on caused the plastic sizing ring to fall off and roll all over the floor. I am embarrassed to tell you that my first reaction was to leave it there, because way, way back in the day at the long since closed Yielding’s in the long since remodeled Brookwood Mall, I dealt with my fair share of slovenly dressing rooms. We’re talking piles of unwanted, brand new clothes strewn about, and hangers everywhere. Then courtesy took hold of me, and I knelt down to pick up each one, popping them back into (albeit relatively flimsy) place.  

I did so for two reasons. Firstly, it’s just the right thing to do. These kids are already paying their dues with their regular job responsibilities; they don’t need me adding to it.   Secondly, I can recall more than a few times when I provided lousy customer service while working retail, with employment motives that were pretty darn shallow – a little extra cash and a regular reason to get out of the house.  

(Most) customers gave me grace, as idiot teenagers require in steady supply. A few gave me snippy feedback that I didn’t like, but it did open my eyes to things I could be, should be, and started doing better.  

Back to today’s little shopping outing.  No sooner had I added the last sizing ring to a hanger before I heard a loud, unfriendly knock on the fitting room door.  

“Someone is in here,” I said politely.  

“Where is your number?!” came the curt reply, from a young associate staring at me after I opened the door. “Where is your number?” she repeated rudely, in a tone meant to imply her displeasure with my (accidental) dressing room non-compliance.  

“Oh! I had the max number of items for my first set of clothes, and when I swapped them out I left the number on the counter.”  

Giving a disinterested glance at the clothes I had neatly stacked there, she continued: “You’re supposed to put those on the return rack over there.” Again, with the teen angst cranked up to a searing 10.

For a beat or two, I thought about saying something along the lines of “I’m sorry, no one told me,” with a casual “Hey, by the way, can you be nicer?”. Just as quickly I knew that would be really tacky of me, and super embarrassing for you. So, I kept my mouth shut with a smile on my face and neatly transferred the clothes to this do or die return rack. At that, she skulked off to go suck the joy out of somebody else’s afternoon.  

And internally, I couldn’t help but chuckle. We’ve all been that customer – and that kid – at some point in our lives. The best we can do is try not to exacerbate (or absorb) other people’s crappy attitudes.  

Bottom line sister girl, you will have bad days on the job – any job. You will have inconsiderate customers. Sometimes you’ll be the one who comes across as inconsiderate.  

Sometimes, most unfortunately, you may even find that you’re being trained by a manager who doesn’t recognize your personal space and has a habit of spitting every time he makes the S sound. Mickey’s Gift Station, Walt Disney World Ticket & Transportation Center, Summer 1998, required a convincing poker face, frequent trips to the ladies’ room and a large stash of Neutrogena wipes.  

The best advice I can give you about working summer retail as a teen boils down to these four things:  

Do your best to treat customers as you would like to be treated. Pro tip – don’t ever, ever, ever say “Congratulations!”, “When are you due?” or anything even suggesting someone is pregnant. At best you’ll find yourself on the awkward end of a conversation that goes something like this: “Oh honey, I’m not pregnant, but don’t feel bad. I know I’m fat.”  

Focus on the job you are hired to do. As opposed to finding reasons to wander out of Ladies’ Apparel and over to see if Cute Jon Who Works in Men’s Shoes is back from Orange Julius yet (for sake of example only, of course).  

Be fully present. This isn’t the time to play on your phone. If no one is shopping, straighten up the racks. Check the fitting rooms. Ask if someone else working there needs help with one of their tasks. Granted, when it was really truly dead, traffic-wise at the Vestavia Parisian Children’s Department, I was able to read quite a few chapters of The Color Purple, and it did make the shift pass faster. But let’s be honest. That was not what I was being paid to do.  

On a related note, it’s been two plus decades since then, yet I still have a hard time eating at the First Watch in the Vestavia City Center (and the Egg & I before it, and the Mexican place before that, and Nonna Rose before that), without feeling like I’m dining in the middle of the old Vestavia Parisian Intimate Apparel section, up the ramp, right by the Juniors in the semi-circle window). Ok, ok…I’ll stop waxing nostalgic now.  

Lastly, use your discounts wisely. It’s not really money saved if you go overboard buying just because you can, and then you end up with a closet full of things you don’t really want to wear.  

I love you!

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